The Rockit Live Foundation honored 2015 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductee Ricky Byrd at its annual gala at the Two River Theater in Red Bank on Aug. 22 for his work with young artists, music education and work in recovery.
The nonprofit organization’s mission “is to help develop, nurture, and inspire young musicians to reach their full artistic potential through live music education offered at The Count Basie Theatre. The foundation’s defining focus is outreach, music education, and scholarships,” according to its website.
Byrd, who is known best as the lead guitarist from Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, has done much more since leaving the band in ’91.
“I get clean in 1987, I return to New York and hit the road again with Joan. It was a little difficult being in the middle of the swirling cyclone, but I manage to follow suggestions and instead of hanging out all night, I go back to my room,” Byrd said. “The first time that I knew that I could really help in the recovery effort, I remember that it was the last Blackhearts work that I did. I had my little community support group logo hanging around my neck. I started getting letters from kids who were fans saying, ‘I saw your jewelry and I want you to know that I am doing the same thing and it’s great to know that a touring musician can stay clean and sober while on the road.’ It was so early in my recovery, that I didn’t really give it a thought.”
Byrd went from leaving the Blackhearts to playing with other musicians around the world to attempting to start his own band as well. Eventually Byrd received a call from his friend Richie in Florida who was trying to get an outdoor recovery concert started and he asked him if he would like to play.
“So, I went down, and I played,” he said. “People started coming up to me and saying things like ‘It’s great to see you’re fighting for the cause,’ and a lightbulb went off over my head. Maybe I could combine music and recovery and give some sort of help to the fight of this cause? You play to your strengths and my strength is music.”
Following the outdoor event, Byrd, with the help from his friend, began putting several of these shows together. After six gigs in Florida and one in Maine, the two began to be noticed.
“It was just [to provide] some awareness, not really to raise money,” Byrd said. “Then, Simon Kirke from Bad Company called me and said, ‘I’m doing this recovery benefit in Boston for a place called Right Turn’ – that’s a treatment facility run by Woody Giessmann, who was in The Del Fuegos. He said it was going to be this all-star event and asked if I wanted to be a part of it, I said absolutely. So, I did this first one and it was great. I got the same response after the show from fans.”
For the next two years, Byrd continued to work for the group as its music director. Putting together shows with famed musicians like Alice Cooper and Ace Frehley, Byrd began becoming enthralled with the mission.
“We did a couple of those and I wrote the song ‘Broken is a Place,’ with Richie. And I just kind of casually put it online and said, ‘Hey man, I wrote this recovery song,’” he said. “I started getting hundreds of messages, like ‘You told my story.’ So, I wrote a second one, then a third, and all of a sudden, I had like six or seven songs, but I didn’t know what to do with them.”
Byrd eventually reached out to a treatment facility in Florida, which also has locations in New Jersey, and asked if he could play music for some of the patients.
“I asked them what they would think if I came with an acoustic and started to play as this recovery troubadour kind of guy and led recovery music groups,” he said. “I started doing this and the response from the clients at these facilities was [great]. People were laughing, crying – it opened them up. The combination between the music and me not being a suit, but this rock & roll veteran who is clean and sober and talking to them on their level, opened up the window for me into some of their hearts and spread the message of recovery.”
After bringing guitar pics to hand out to listeners, most people had the same question for him: where could they listen to the music at home?
“I procrastinated, knowing that I would have to make a record. So, I started a crowd funding campaign,” he said. “I raised enough money and made the ‘Clean Getaway’ record – it came out in 2017. Now, every time that I go play at a treatment center in these recovery music groups, I bring a stack of them and give them out to [those] in treatment so they can bring them home.”
After receiving a call from rock photographer Mark Weiss, Byrd found out about the Rockit Live Foundation.
“[He] told me about this foundation that gives instruments to kids and encourages them to play music. Now, these kids are no slouches – I’ve seen some of them perform better than some adults that I know,” he said. “He told me that they were doing an event at the Count Basie Theatre and asked if I’d like to do a song. Then I played with them and I just fell in love with these kids.”
Since performing with the Rockit Live Foundation, Byrd continues to work with the children and instill his ideals of recovery in them, as well.
“Anything to get kids to go in the right direction is a terrific thing,” he said.
Recently, Byrd spent the last year going to school to become a certified counselor for people with substance and/or alcohol abuse problems. He spends a few days a week working at the sober living facility Christopher’s Reason in Staten Island.
“I’m learning how to be helpful in a clinical sense, too,” he said. “So, I’m being honored for the work that I do with recovery and also the fact that I’m in love with the Rockit Academy and what they do.”
To learn more about the Rockit Live Foundation, visit its website at www.rockitacademy.org.
For more information on Ricky Byrd and to hear “Clean Getaway,” visit www.rickybyrd.com. You can donate and preorder his second “Recovery Troubadour” album there as well.